What to Watch While You’re Waiting for Fireworks

The Dispatch staff shares some of their favorite July 4 classics.

In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams once wrote that Independence Day ought to be commemorated “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” If he had been around in 2021, Adams might have added another thing to his list: movies. Hollywood has produced countless tales celebrating the U.S. of A. and all that it stands for, and there are few better ways to observe July 4 than with a classic tale of patriotism and the American spirit. So if you’re looking for something to do this weekend besides barbecuing, sitting by the pool, or eating apple pie while you watch baseball, The Dispatch staff has got you covered. From comedy to drama to thriller, here are some of our favorite patriotic films and TV shows. Happy Independence Day!

Alec Dent shares his thoughts on Casablanca, available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on Amazon Prime.

July 4 is a celebration of many things, but above all else it is a celebration of freedom. Which is why it’s natural that we don’t just think of the Revolutionary War this weekend, we celebrate America’s repeated victories in the name of freedom: the Civil War, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, and, of course, World War II, when America saved the world from the threat of fascist domination. It’s this victory that’s captured beautifully in Casablanca—possibly the greatest of all World War II films—which shows the ideological battle of World War II in a microcosm: not on the battlefield but in a bar. 

Representing fascism: Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt).

Our American hero: Rick Blaine (the inimitable Humphrey Bogart).

(There will be spoilers here and I won’t apologize for including them. This movie is a classic. It’s been around for ages and I would be shocked, SHOCKED if you haven’t seen it already.)

Strasser more or less has his run of Casablanca, ordering around the French police captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and harassing Czech resistance hero Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) as they try to escape to America. It’s only once Rick shakes his isolationist tendencies that Nazi control of Casablanca ceases. Rick goes from sticking his neck out for nobody to killing Strasser to ensure that Laszlo escapes and then joining the Free French in Brazzaville.

There’s something very American about defeating fascists, making Casablanca worth watching this Independence Day if only for that. And in Rick the film captures some of the qualities uniquely identifiable to the American spirit: He’s an individualist (and a capitalist!) with a soft spot for underdogs and a hatred of tyranny. He’s imperfect and sometimes needs to be stirred to action, but at his heart is, as Renault puts it, a rank sentimentalist, moved by his desire to help others and his belief that some things are, no matter how bleak, worth fighting for.

Ryan Brown shares his thoughts on Independence Day, available to stream on HBO Max and available to rent on Amazon Prime.

I have a confession to make: As of 7:18 p.m. ET on June 29, I had never seen a minute of Independence Day. Turns out I’m not the only one at The Dispatch who hasn’t seen it, and we were all rightly shamed at a staff meeting for being so uncultured. Having since corrected my mistake, I have to say that I cannot believe it took me so long to see this cinematic masterpiece. 

I  was skeptical. I knew the movie leaned heavily on visual effects—it’s about aliens after all—and I thought there would be no way a ‘90s movie would hold up after all the advancements Hollywood has made in CGI. I was wrong. While the CGI isn’t perfect, it works well enough, and whatever slight deficiencies there are are more than made up for by how good everything else about the film is: The storyline, the cast ( hello there, Harry Connick Jr.), the comedic relief was sprinkled in at perfect moments (Judd Hirsch’s Julius Levinson, the hilarious father of Jeff Goldblum’s character, was absolutely my favorite character), and of course the unsullied pull at the patriotic heartstrings. 

On this July 4, let this movie fill you with some good old-fashioned American pride. Shed a tear during that iconic speech from President Bill Pullman, jump out of your couch when the bombs hit the alien spacecraft, and crack a celebratory beer when Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum come back down to earth. All the while knowing that America is the greatest country in the world, both in real life and in the movies.

Harvest Prude shares her thoughts on The Great Escape, available to stream on Tubi and available to rent on Amazon Prime.

In some ways, the classic World War II adventure film The Great Escape is the antithesis of a fireworks-filled July 4. Replace ephemeral light shows and the warm-fuzzies of family barbeque with a slow-burning underdog tale—the movie runs nearly three hours long—and a bittersweet ending.

But The Great Escape almost perfectly captures some of the aspects most worth heralding on Independence Day—that enterprising and ingenious American spirit, undaunted in the face of near-impossible odds. In the film, a group of Allied POWs seek to outfox their guards and break out of a high-security Nazi facility designed to be “escape proof.” The plot delves as much into the hatching and carrying out of the escape plan (the construction of three tunnels, dubbed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry,”) as it does on the epic chase at the end, where the escapees lead the Germans all over occupied Europe. Along the way, the film delivers a lovable cast of characters to root for: a “scrounger” who sweet talks (and blackmails) to procure goods, a manufacturer who jerry-rigs tools, and a serial troublemaker whose nickname “Cooler King” reflects the amount of time he spends in solitary confinement.

And, in case you remain unconvinced it’s a fitting Independence Day movie, the Americans in the camp manage to pull off a camp-wide Fourth of July celebration, replete with home-brewed moonshine.

As a last note, don’t be too daunted by the run time. It’s more than made up for by an epic motorcycle chase executed by Steve McQueen, who did nearly all of his own stunts for the movie. 

Sarah Isgur shares her thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty, available to stream on Starz and to rent on Amazon Prime.

Let me be clear about one thing: Zero Dark Thirty is really more of a Valentine’s Day movie. It’s a love story between a woman and her job, which happens to be tracking down and killing Osama Bin Laden on behalf of the 2,996 people he killed on September 11, their families, and every single one of us who watched those towers fall that morning. She is a rare hero for our Hollywood-taste. She isn’t charismatic or even likable. She isn’t heroic—at least in the traditional sense. She isn’t some rare polymath genius. But she is dogged. 

When the CIA director sits down to ask Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, “What else have you done for us besides Bin Laden” in the previous 12 years, she answers, “I’ve done nothing else.” Perhaps it is because I am a generalist who has never held a job for more than two years or because I was 18 years old on 9/11 and felt so helpless and angry that day, but it is the only movie that I’ve ever watched (other than the emotionally manipulative first 10 minutes of Up) that makes me tear up every time I watch it. 

The best of America isn’t just represented in the bravery of the men who stormed Normandy or the brilliance of a Hawking or an Edison. The best of America is just as often the unlikely, the gritty, the obsessed. Plus, what better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than to watch Bin Laden undertake his journey to hell.

Declan Garvey shares his thoughts on National Treasure, available to stream on Disney+ and to rent on Amazon Prime.

If you’re looking for a movie to watch this weekend, there is no shortage of summer blockbusters or patriotism-tinged flicks that will scratch that Fourth of July itch. But only one movie—no, cinematic masterpiece—centers on a peak-of-his-powers Nicolas Cage literally stealing the Declaration of Independence.

2004’s National Treasure, from director John Turteltaub, tells the story of the Gates family—which traces its roots back to the Revolutionary War—and their generations-long search for a fortune “too great for any one man to have.” Benjamin Franklin Gates (Cage) has devoted his life to the quest, much to the dismay of his disillusioned father Patrick (Jon Voight).

“There is no treasure,” Patrick pleads with his son at one point, exasperated. “I wasted years of my life. And now you’ve destroyed yours.”

But one Founding Father’s clue leads to another, taking the younger Gates from an abandoned shipwreck in the Arctic to Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia. Along the way, he breaks into the National Archives, gets shot at by a former business partner, accidentally kidnaps a woman, falls in love with said woman, and rekindles his dad’s lust for adventure.

Part heist movie, part history lesson, National Treasure injects a new sense of wonder into the American Founding. When its soundtrack’s orchestral refrain swells, you may find yourself—like Ben—wishing you could be transported back to 1776.  

Charlotte Lawson shares her thoughts on Red Oaks, available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Red Oaks is a quintessentially American (and criminally underrated) coming of age tale, with a healthy dose of 1980s nostalgia. Director David Gordon Green’s three-season series follows the relatably awkward David Meyers as he navigates the tension between personal ambition and familial obligation in his upwardly mobile suburban community. With an accomplished but under-the-radar cast including Submarine’s Craig Roberts, Teen Wolf’s Gage Golightly, Project X’s Oliver Cooper, and Blindspot’s Ennis Esmer, the “dramedy” encapsulates the relational component driving the pursuit of happiness in the United States.

Take Season One, Episode Five: During the local country club’s yearly July 4 celebration, Meyers confronts his gravitation toward Skye (Alexandra Socha), the daughter of club president Doug Getty (Paul Reiser), while the valet and resident drug dealer, Wheeler (Cooper), dispenses of his “party king” reputation to expose a cheater. Meyers’ mother (Jennifer Grey), meanwhile, comes to terms with her life as a lesbian woman in an ostensibly open-minded but all-too-attentive community. 

In the final scene of the episode, under the colorful glow of the club’s annual fireworks show, Getty (Paul Reiser), tells his wife and Skye’s mother that he wants to get a home in the Hamptons. “You realize this doesn’t mean she’s going to want to spend more time with us?” Mrs. Getty asks her husband of their daughter. “It doesn’t mean she won’t,” Getty responds. “Beachfront?,” she inquires. “Of course, beachfront,” Getty answers. Success in America is multidimensional and serves multiple ends, not the least of which is seeking to cultivate a relationship with one’s family.

Tripp Grebe shares his thoughts on The Sandlot, available to stream on Disney+ and to rent on Amazon Prime.

The Sandlot differs from other sports films—there's no bigger, better opponent to overcome, no crescendo to a final game, and no bad guys to defeat—it's just about a bunch of kids trying to enjoy  their summer and discover themselves.

Set during the summer of 1962, The Sandlot follows a group of boys who play baseball together as they learn all sorts of life lessons that we wished we had learned when we were younger. Some of these lessons are important, like the importance of individuality and the value of empathy, but even the movie’s small lessons prove unforgettable. Case in point, catcher Hamilton “Ham” Porter’s s’mores recipe

“First you take the graham. You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then, you roast the mallow. When the mallow’s flaming, you stick it on the chocolate. Then, you cover it with the other end. Then, you scarf.”

The Sandlot is full of memorable moments, but especially around Independence Day. 

To the backdrop of Ray Charles' rendition of "America the Beautiful," the boys play their only night game of the year as glistening fireworks illuminate the field

“We played our best then because I guess we all felt like the big leaguers under the lights of some great stadium,” narrator David M. Evans says.